Saturday, January 14, 2012

Treaty of Tripoli

This link from has been making the rounds on facebook lately:

for those who don't want to link on this, I'll paste the text:

"Unless you think George Washington didn’t know much about America’s founding, we should probably take his word over today’s conservatives….

It's come across my page a couple of times. Something about this bothered me, so I put on my Historian fact-checker's hat ( I do have a degree in History. I haven't used it much except for stuff like this, which is for me fun.)

First of all, I located the original document which can be found at (hit the [Prev Image] link at the top to find the first page.)
The section in question is Article 11, which reads in entirety,

"Art. 11. As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries."

I have some issues with this document shard to have come up in today's conversation about the separation of church and state. I understand and agree with MoveOn's point and stance about the issue, which is to give evidence of the Founding Founders position of religion and its role in policy making which is nil, and this treaty certainly does support it. However in today's world of short-attention spans and sound-bytes, there is an error that MoveOn makes with this cookie of information. George Washington never said this.

The treaty of Tripoli was written in 1796, by poet and diplomat Joel Barlow. It passed unanimously through Congress, and in the summer of 1797 it was John Adams who signed it, not Geo. Washington. I don't know why the contributor to MoveOn made this error. whether it was a minor slip-up of facts, (I choose to believe this) or a deliberate choice that Washignton carries more punch than Adams in mawkish patriotic sentimentalities (which I really really really hope is not the case). but in either way the quote is in error on this point and must be pointed out, and has at the poster's reddit account.

So the point the contributor is making is a strong one, though, once that error is resolved. He is referencing written documentary evidence that the founding fathers did not want the United States government to be founded on any religion. And I am a little wilted that this point had to ever have come up. When I was growing up in the 70s and 80s, in all of my history courses in elementary and high school, it was a given fact that there was a separation of church and state. It was a clear-cut lesson. The nuances had not been present, for sure. We were not questioning the phrase "under God" on our money or in the Pledge of Allegiance, and the point that churches had a tax exempt status was not part of our curriculum. The lesson was that the government could not enstate a formal religion of any sort on its citizenry, and that policies that favored one religion over another with benefits were unconstitutional. As the Age of Reagan came to a head, and we were entering the 1990s, these issues came up more and more often in the national conversation. I entered my college years, and as typical for that age, more cognizant of these issues than when I was an adolescent. Why was "under God" on our money? Why erect a statue of the Ten Commandments on state property? These and other questions gained more momentum to me, and my interest in universal freedoms guaranteed by the constitution was piqued. Who is protected under the Constituion? American citizens. Who are American citizens? People of all walks of life. What religions do the observe? Many different religions, and some not at all.
So, it makes sense to me that a fair government, in order to serve its citizens properly, should not favor one religion over another. So why does it happen? Why does "under God" appear on our money? Why are churches tax-exempt? It does this because the citizens of the United States are people, and democracy dictates (supposedly) how things happen. Under God appeared on our money in the 1950s because Congress, the representatives of the States and the people passed this bill. Supposedly because it was the will of the people. Now, we all know there are flaws in the system, and that there are cronies and lobbies and monetary influences going on in government. It's a dirty game, and sometimes dirty games favor some groups of people over others, and it is the duty of the citizenry to be vigilant about these dirty deeds and bring them to light. MoveOn has taken on this mantle, and I think the whole separation of church and state idea being scrutinized on many levels is a good thing.

Finding a balance of what is constitutional and what is not can be a charged and tricky question. , Do the documents cited in the eighteenth century pertain to today's culture and political landscape? In a possibly ironic way, this is a similar question to whether the religious texts of two thousand years ago pertain to today's religious questions of morality and so forth. Context is necessary to understand the documents.

The late 18th century was a tumulous time for the world. The American colonies were wresting with independence and the lower and middle classes were doing he same in France and England and elsewhere in Europe. Advances in communication and transportation due to European imperialism were making it possible to get loftier ideas of human rights available to a wider populace. The British Empire was losing ground world-wide in its influence. The Mediterranean Sea was an important location for the British, as it was a major trade route to the middle east. Britain controlled, patrolled and policed the Sea very diligently with its navy, keeping pirates and militarily weaker countries under control pretty efficiently. The American Revolution ate up a huge chunk of Britain's military funds, and britain was no longer able to patrol the seas as before, and so north African countries, especially in this case Algiers, took advantage of this weaker patrol and began to establish their powers there by targetting what they saw as threats to their own best interest, being of course, foreign ships, mostly trade vessels. Some of these were American. Tripoli was on the very western edge of the Ottoman Empire in north Africa, and was a breeding ground for Barbary pirates, who captured ships and sold the prisoners as slaves, this being done and sanctioned by the Ottoman Empire. Britain protected the colonial trade ships from these acts of piracy, and after the Revolution, The newly formed nation had to build its own treaties of peace with foreign nations. In 1785 two ships were captured and the crews faced slavery unless a rnasom was paid to Algiers. It was rumored that Benjamin Franklin, the darling of America was one of those prisoners. America did not have much of a navy at the time to take military action so was forced to pay the ransom, and further "protection monies" to prevent this from happening in the future. It was in the pest interest of the nited Sates to make treaties with these pirates and they are collectively known as the Barbary Treaties, and Joel Barlow was consul-general, so it was his appointment to draft them. Washington DID indirectly appoint Barlow, and DID commission the treaties. The treaties were signed in Algiers in November 1796 by the Barlow and the Barbary counsel, and in early January by David Humpherys, plenipotentiary in Lisbon, but did not get back to the United States in time for Washington himself to sign it.
So what about this Article 11, that is the picking point for today's conversation? The entirety of the treaty had nothing whatsoever to do with religion. The Barbary pirates did not care about religions when they captured crew members for slavery. They took Christians, Jews, and Muslims. They wanted money, period. Frank Lambert writes, "...[the Treaty was]intended to allay the fears of the Muslim state by insisting that religion would not govern how the treaty was interpreted and enforced. John Adams and the Senate made clear that the pact was between two sovereign states, not between two religious powers." It was part of the American zeitgeist that it be known that it was a secular nation, not a nation built on Christianity, and the Treaty of Tripoli was one handy document to put that point into. The sentiment is reflected in other contemporary documents, but it is pretty well established that the idea of the separation of church and state was a driving force in the formation of the new nation.

So suck it, Religious Right.

1 comment:

GreggerMan said...

As an atheist I am beholding to you for taking the time and energy to sleuth the truth out.

If Jefferson and Paine were able to see and hear what is going down these days they would no doubt believe there actually was a hell.